Witness to Joy

A sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderly.

Readings for this service: Isaiah 61. 1-4, 8-end; 1 Thessalonians 5. 16-24; John 1. 6-8, 19-28

This week at our neighbours St James Piccadilly, a new installation has been created in the church, to highlight the continuing refugee crisis in Europe and across our world. It’s called Suspended and consists of 700 individual items of clothing of adults and infants, male and female, suspended above the nave of the church, amongst them you see suspended together, a baby-grow, a woman’s skirt, a tracksuit top, mittens. Across this installation light and shadow play. The items all collected from the beaches and olive groves around the Greek island of Lesbos, through the work of the Starfish Foundation. Each piece of clothing belonged to somebody and has a history. It represents real people and real lives and the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. I think it is a helpful piece for our reflections today, on this third Sunday of Advent, when we are invited to be with John the Baptist, in a wilderness place, witnessing and pointing the way to Jesus.

This artwork by Arabella Dorman, invites us to explore themes of identity and witness, as does our Gospel reading. Who are the people who wore these clothes?  How have they been seen by others – as ones who needed welcoming in and cared for, or by some as a threat to be excluded? Where are they now? Suspended between their old life and the hope of a new one, in the wilderness of refugees camps across Europe, some still in Greece, many in a place between their past and an uncertain future, in a place between loss and hope.  As we look at this installation we are invited to be witnesses. Witnesses to their story, to the terrible journey they have come, witnesses who keep alive their hope of a transformed future, challenging the structures and politics and prejudices, that keep them suspended and in limbo. Witnessing to Christ in them.

In Advent, we are in a place of suspension, as we wait for the coming of God to be with us in the Christ Child at Christmas, but also suspended as we wait in that place between that first coming of Christ and the time of fulfilment when he will come to us again, at the end of all things. John shows us how to live in this suspended place; with joy and humility, confidence and hope.

John show us how to live as someone who recognises and has a profound understanding of the joy of God and the hope of restoration that Jesus brings; as someone who has humility and points the way to another; as someone who is not afraid to be a witness and speak that message of hope into the wildernesses of the world, in a challenging way when God calls him to do so; who shows us how to be open to the mystery and greatness of God, to the one among us ‘whom you do not know’. Whose whole identity is completely taken up with showing others the way to Jesus and the liberating life he brings. Living as a herald of joy, with self-emptying humility, as a witness, open to the unexpected presence of God among us.

How might we do that?

Called to live with joy: Traditionally this Sunday is called Gaudate Sunday, a time when the fasting and restrictions of Advent would be eased, as a reminder of the joy that we anticipate of God’s coming to be with us at Christmas. Gaudate means ‘rejoice’ and both our reading from Isaiah and the letter to the Thessalonians include the call to ‘rejoice’.

John the Baptist points the way to the good news of God.  John himself quotes Isaiah 40, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.’ And in our reading, from a later chapter, we heard those hopeful words of restoration, about God’s abundant life flourishing in the wilderness, spoken first to those who had lived as exiles, returning home to Jerusalem, as an encouragement when they see the devastation around them. For John it is in Jesus, that this joy will be known and this restoration will take place, when the good news he brings comes to those who have not yet heard it. It is in Jesus the oppressed will find liberation, the broken-hearted will be restored, those who are bound will be set free, prisoners released, refugees find a new home, dignity, and a new beginning.

The possibilities of that wonderful life are with us in the person of Jesus. And John’s role is to point the way to this joyful homecoming. He encourages us to live as heralds of joy, with the confidence of all we know about Jesus and the joy he has brought us, and that we have seen of his presence in the world around us. And to point others towards it.

Remember a time when you’ve known this kind of joy, even if it may seem buried, something you experienced a while ago perhaps, and only now have a rumour of. The joy you came seeking again, here today. How might you be called to express that joy to others? To give it life?  Now isn’t the time to keep it to yourself, or allow the wilderness experiences you see around you, or even perhaps those you are experiencing yourself, to overwhelm you. The world needs to know what you know. Offer the joy you know to the world, as it waits in this expectant time.  If we live with the deep joy of Christ in us we will point others towards it. Paul calls the Thessalonians to live in this way, with lives marked by delight, and gratitude, and confidence.

Called to live with humility: John’s humility comes from being honest about himself and what God is calling him to be. How tempting it must have been to step into the limelight and claim one of those titles. Haven’t we all been tempted to claim we are someone more important than we actually are? But the power of John’s witness is in his truthfulness. He is not Elijah, or one of the prophets, nor the Messiah. He is completely at peace with the role he has been called to take and he knows too that it is temporary, God has a particular place and a time for him.  God needs each of us to be truthfully who we are, in the places and times he is calling us into. Allow God to show you your place of truth, who he really needs you to be and where. It may mean stepping up into something you didn’t imagine you were capable of, or stepping down to take a lower place. Trust that God needs you there, at least for a time.  When we have those grand illusions about our position in the world, as we jostle with colleagues, we allow the child that we wait for in the manger, God who comes truly taking the lowest and humblest place, to guide us to know the truth of where God is calling us.

If we take our rightful place we enable, rather than block or hinder other people’s path to God. John’s humility made it possible for others to truly see Jesus. Allow God’s self-emptying, that inspired John to inspire you, so you enable others to see Jesus, rather than hinder their view.

Called to live as a witness: Throughout the Fourth Gospel it is through eye witnesses that we learn about Jesus and others are brought into relationship with him. The Samaritan woman, who encounters Jesus at the well, goes to tell her community and many of them believe in him because of what she tells them.  The man born blind testifies before the hostile Jewish authorities. Mary Magdalene, the first eyewitness to the resurrection goes to tell the disciples, and the disciples themselves are sent to tell the world because, it says, they have been eyewitnesses from the beginning. In fact the whole Gospel is commended as a trustworthy account as it is based on the eyewitness account of the beloved disciple. And we hear it is written so that others may believe. Jesus in his prayer to God prays for the disciples and all who will believe through them. Being a witness is what it means to know Jesus. Like John and the other eye-witnesses in the gospel we are not meant to remain silent, even if in speaking we face challenges. Each one of us has a voice that can speak to particular people in a particular way. Allow God to help you find your voice, to tell of what you know.

Inspired by joy, finding our place and our voice, means we will be prepared and recognise Jesus when he comes. John has courage to refer to Jesus as the one ‘we do not know’. As the church all over the world prepares for Christmas, John reminds us that we aren’t doing the ‘same old thing all over again’. We are waiting expectant for a new thing, a new way for God to come to be with us, a new joy to surprise us, a new hope to be inspired in us. Something that Jesus reveals to us that we didn’t know before, that we will long to share.

One of the baby-grow that hang in the Suspended installation has on it the words: ‘My first Christmas ever!’ We are invited to be heralds of that joy, that speaks into the wildernesses of our world, into the refugee crisis, the holy land and places of conflict, into the worries we, and those around us are facing, with a message of hope. Allow God to show you how to be a witness to that hope and joy that Jesus brings.